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Michael Barone
Michael Barone
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History Suggests That Entitlement Era Is Winding Down


It's often good fun and sometimes revealing to divide American history into distinct periods of uniform length. In working on my forthcoming book on American migrations, internal and immigrant, it occurred to me that you could do this using the American-sounding interval of 76 years, just a few years more than the Biblical lifespan of three score and 10.

It was 76 years from Washington's First Inaugural in 1789 to Lincoln's Second Inaugural in 1865. It was 76 years from the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865 to the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Going backward, it was 76 years from the First Inaugural in 1789 to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which settled one of the British-French colonial wars. And going 76 years back from Utrecht takes you to 1637, when the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies were just getting organized.

As for our times, we are now 71 years away from Pearl Harbor. The current 76-year interval ends in December 2017.

Each of these 76-year periods can be depicted as a distinct unit. In the colonial years up to 1713, very small numbers of colonists established separate cultures that have persisted to our times.

The story is brilliantly told in David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed." For a more downbeat version, read the recent "The Barbarous Years" by the nonagenarian Bernard Bailyn.

From 1713 to 1789, the colonies were peopled by much larger numbers of motley and often involuntary settlers — slaves, indentured servants, the unruly Scots-Irish on the Appalachian frontier.

For how this society became dissatisfied with the colonial status quo, read Bailyn's "Ideological Origins of the American Revolution."

From 1789 to 1865, Americans sought their manifest destiny by expanding across the continent. They made great technological advances but were faced with the irreconcilable issue of slavery in the territories.

For dueling accounts of the period, read the pro-Andrew Jackson Democrat Sean Wilentz's "The Rise of American Democracy" and the pro-Henry Clay Whig Daniel Walker Howe's "What Hath God Wrought." Both are sparklingly written and full of offbeat insights and brilliant apercus.

The 1865-1941 period saw a vast efflorescence of market capitalism, European immigration and rising standards of living. For descriptions of how economic change reshaped the nation and its government, read Morton Keller's "Affairs of State and Regulating a New Society."

The 70-plus years since 1941 have seen a vast increase in the welfare safety net and governance by cooperation between big units — big government, big business, big labor — that began in the New Deal and gained steam in and after World War II.

I immodestly offer my own "Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan."

The original arrangements in each 76-year period became unworkable and unraveled toward its end. Eighteenth-century Americans rejected the colonial status quo and launched a revolution and established a constitutional republic.

Nineteenth-century Americans went to war over expansion of slavery. Early 20th-century Americans grappled with the collapse of the private sector economy in the Depression of the 1930s.

We are seeing something like this again today. The welfare state arrangements that once seemed solid are on the path to unsustainability.

Entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — are threatening to gobble up the whole government and much of the private sector, as well.

Lifetime employment by one big company represented by one big union is a thing of the past. People who counted on corporate or public sector pensions are seeing them default.

Looking back, we are as far away in time today from victory in World War II in 1945 as Americans were at the time of the Dred Scott decision from the First Inaugural.

We are as far away in time today from passage of the Social Security in 1935 as Americans then were from the launching of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Nevertheless our current president and most politicians of his party seem determined to continue the current welfare state arrangements — historian Walter Russell Mead calls this the blue state model — into the indefinite future.

Some leaders of the other party are advancing ideas for adapting a system that worked reasonably well in an industrial age dominated by seemingly eternal big units into something that can prove workable in an information age experiencing continual change and upheaval wrought by innovations in the market economy.

The current 76-year period is nearing its end. What will come next?

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




6 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;... You are confusing co-incident, with significant... Let me tell you some of what is going on... All of history is the story of changing forms, and it is no more easy a process than childbirth... What is common in history is uncommon in the life of a man, for great social forms to suffer a death and rebirth through revolution is simply uncommon, though when it happens out of necessity it usually happens quickly because the need is so long present before people can gather themselves up for a push forward...
People are all conservative, and the reason they create such elaborate forms is to resist change... Marriage is a simple form intended to protect a loving relationship, and resist change... All forms are forms of relationship, but just as in a marriage, some people change the rules out of their view of self interest, and when the form changed no longer serves the relationships, then people must change them, or start over with a new form and a new relationship...
The real changes in this country parallel your four score and ten, to a point...The constitution was accepted, and it gave us the power to resist enemies and gain strength on the backs of slaves...Not content with the privilage given to slave owners, they wanted the same privlages granted to property in slaves as was given to property in general: Portability... This threatened the whole notion upon which this nation was founded, of free men practicing free self government...
So the change required modification, but the modification left property and property rights stronger yet...So it was that Justice O.W. Holmes with a more humanistic and less activist view of the courts helped to begin a reaction against unlimited property privilages...
What you are seeing today is the end of your government... The supports one finds in the constitution for the economic principals of a by gone age are now in stark contradition to the commonly held view of democracy, human freedom, and government at the service of humanity, and yet the devotion we hold for the constitution that so many of our best have died in the defense of -borders on madness complete with hysterics...
None the less, in the course of human events, when it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve those political bands which have connected them with another; and to assume, among those powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature entitle them; it will only be done out of dire necessity... The people need government, and not government in cahoots with business to expedite their rape, exploitation, and disenfranchisment... Human rights have forever been in absolute conflict with property privilages, and with the privilages of church that have stood eternally against human rights... As Jefferson pointed out... It is prudent that governments established to secure our rights not be changed for light and transient reason, but governments can become destructive of the very ends for which they were created...
Clearly, commerce does not need the protection of government, and neither do the churches...It is the people who need the protection of government against business and the denominations... It is not prudence so much as human conservatism and confusion widely propagated that is standing between our government and revolution...
The thing cannot reform itself...No criminal or drunk ever reforms their behavior without pressure, and the people are so little able to apply pressure to their government that it is they who must fear reform; and fear in fact reforms that deny democracy to them at any level...
The last great attempt to change our society was in the Civil War, and that attempt was thwarted completely... We could protect ourselves for a time from being made slaves by competition with slaves, but we could not prevent our dehumanization by competiton with robots, or by competion with foreign slaves... We have no defense against slavery, and a national problem is made impossible by having fifty states with fifty governments and layers of bureaucracy...
Only revolution will save us, but absolute tyranny is more likely... The power of business and religion in the military is complete... There is no respect for civil government, and there will be less after revolution than before...So we are screwed, but it is screwed people who most need revolution...Having nothing but a miserable and pitiful life gives a person nothing to lose, and everything to fight for...The peoples rights to their lives, and to real self government cannot be denied in the desire to protect the privilages of those who profit off our want of defense... We need to at least be the equal of property and religion in the eyes of our government... These people who feed off of us must realize that their privilages grow out of our rights...
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Jan 14, 2013 5:30 AM
Thanks for the history lesson, but this article provides no evidance to why the welfare state is about to end. "Its unsustainable", is not a good enough reason. Washington does all sorts of unsustainable things every day. Don't get me wrong, I think the welfare state is destroying this nation and is totally immoral, but if people are going to argue against it, they should bring their A game. This is D+ game at best.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Mon Jan 14, 2013 9:18 AM
Re: Chris McCoy;... Really Chris??? You think it is immoral to drive people from their land by collusion, deceit and conspiracy; which the constitution, the courts and the government support, and then leave people hopeless and without support from the land we the people hold title to??? Read some law... Use some sense... Even the Romans had welfare for their citizens displaced by slavery... Is it more kind to displace people by machinery or robots??? Consider property itself as a form of relationship... Where can you show the notion has not always been in flux??? And where has the notion of property been able to stand against the tide of public opinion??? The reason you see so few black men plowing fields as in days of old is that that particular notion of property could not stand against the will of the people... So, why today should you believe our notions of property can stand pat while the whole nation, minus a rich few, can be dispossessed of the commonwealth, and all their means of self support???... To support people in poverty is so much easier than to support them in their rights... Only a fool would think to deny to people what is theirs only to have them once again possess themselves of it and dispossess the rich of their life styles and lives with the same effort...Why is it you fools on the right spout out about morality without ever having cracked a book on the subject... You take far too much for granted that you really should not.
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Jan 14, 2013 4:07 PM
Sir; .. One of those 18th century wits, perhaps Dr. Johnson talked about levellers wanting to level down, but not wanting to level up...Others have noted our inability to attack the rich because we admire them, and think that if fortune smiled at us we would be rich too...
We can do nothing of great moment to upset our wildest dreams of avarice... But it is the low point of demoralization to say the wealth of the commonwealth privatized should not be touched, let alone taxed, or otherwise returned to the commonwealth if it would help the poor... Just as we characterize the rich as the rich we characterize the poor as the poor, and cease to think of them as so many individuals... There is a deeply ingrained thought that runs through the history, and even pre-history of mankind that suggests people get what they deserve, and deserve their fates...
Even though, in our history we have examples of mythic figures like Job, and Jesus who suffered without cause, we still cannot escape from the prejudice that people in some sense warrant what becomes of them... Thus wealth has honor, and poverty has dishonor... But when we say: The poor shall eat no more, and they will live in the street, or they will eat or sleep where they please on less; what are we saying to those less powerful, less deserving of pain and punishment than all others??? It is children we cause to suffer, and when they become conscious of their pain and position, and realize there is so much that only a little of would have secured them from want, then the poisons of anger and envy seep into their lives and ruins them...
It is possible to buy a little knowledge with a lot of pain, and it hurts to know that where there are poor, there are people free to profit on their pain, who know what the government will give, and set their rents accordingly...I can fully understand any objection to the obvious immorality of the poor, or to the parasitizing of parties and profiteers on the poor...I certainly understand the question of treating a disease for which there is no likely cure...
If we would be a nation it is our job to bring others into it, into a sense of equality with all and a sense of self worth as Americans... To leave children growing into adulthood asserting a self worth that all of society denies is the making of monsters... Even to feed and clothe and educate the children of the poor is not enough...In some fashion, and there is no better way than person to person, these people have got to learn that their nation loves them, and cares for them, and recognizes their value...This is no great chore for a Christian, but is only making social their spiritual beliefs... The fact is that God knows as we know what we whorship, and if it is money or power or hate then we will not be swayed from our idolotry by any appeal for mercy, or be turned from our secret devotion...
I am a lousy Catholic, and I have heard people argue to their priest that at least a part of their taxes should be considered as tithe which was usually a 10% tax for the support of the priesthood...But it is not uncommon for churches to fight for what is theirs, as charity is, even if they do not do the job well, or at all...Perhaps the real terrible fact of entitlements is that the people find themselves supporting behavior they deplore, and then again, it is possible that if their taxes were paid by subscription, that they would pay more to help others, but now resent the demands of government which they cannot deny...
Why should I care??? I like the feeling I am helping the poor though I know my taxes go much more to evil than to good...I have a bleeding heart, and not like a butcher, but as a human being who has known hunger, hopelessness and insecurity...
Before I fall asleep in my warm bed on a cold night, I think I can almost feel some homeless child's shiver, and hear some cry of hunger; and I think, tomorrow I will do more; and I sleep on it, but I do not sleep easy...The help I give, when I give, avoids as much as possible the bureaucracy of charity... How many must I support all to make certain no one gets enough, or any more than they deserve???...The only gift I give to rich or poor, to government and fellow citizens alike- is the demand I make for justice because justice makes peace... With justice the very rich would be as rare as the very poor, and now, both are far too common...
Thanks.... Sweeney
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Jan 15, 2013 5:00 AM
As usual you twist my words. I think its immoral to put burden on future generations to pay for our unsustainable lifestyle today. I also think its immoral to force people into a retirement program that is a complete disaster when many better options exist. I said nothing about driving people from their lands, although our overreaching government still does that today.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Tue Jan 15, 2013 6:23 AM
Re: Chris McCoy...I don't mean to twist your words; but consider that the economy that cannot support the government that protects it is done finished, and over... If you cannot get by without credit that amounts to usury, and if your wages are kept so low that saving is out of the question, health care is out of the question, and education for yourself or your children is out of the question then what exactly would be the difference between you and a slave???... If you are robbing the commonwealth and environment of resources future generations will certainly need, then what is the difference between doing that and robbing them with the national debt???...
It was not just the democrats who did this, but both the parties, and they did so governed by principals unproven, but accepted as fact, that to tax the rich was bad for the economy... If the rich paid the bill, I trust they would be less of spendthrifts, and more conservative and caring of the national budget...They hold to the principal that low wages are good for the economy, but in ruining the domestic market, and forcing every consumer to purchase cheap, from over seas, supporting slave wages abroad, and slave wages here; they force us into a defense of distant markets, see money drained from our economy, and capital too, exported to buy slavery for others and poverty for us...
It is not bad to consider morality...But where shall one begin??? As much as leisure, morality is the parent of philosophy... In the past, leisure was carried on the backs of slaves, and today it is carried on the back of technology...Try to understand, Chris; that no less a philosopher than Santayana, who was a very bright light for America estimated long ago that we could all support ourselves with two hours of work a day...Look at how many are supported by the relative few working; but consider also how working people are reduced to a mere subsistence existence out of the need to support multitudes of non productive members of society... And that is not all their subsistence supports... People are made slaves to support bloated and wastful government that helps to keep them poor and powerless...At the same time, out of principal, government does all in its power to keep people rich, and occasionally to add to their numbers... Government also keeps vast numbers, a higher percentage than any other country behind bars, in prison, supported in pain and poverty and kept even from the meaning a poor and productive life would give to them... We also have the military industrial complex, and it also keeps vast numbers unproductively employed, and doing nothing to add meaning to their being...Isn't it time to consider how much of human labor is simply wasted???
I risked my life to do a good job building some structures that were torn down and scrapped within my life time before having a chance to grow old because they did not fit the revised corporate plan... Am I supposed to say: I was paid, and that it an end to it??? From the standpoint of capital, that is all there is, a person sells their labor for what they can get, and they have no more demand upon the employer...It cannot possibly be as simple as that because people put far more into their jobs than they are paid for, and will do so because creation is recreation of self, and meaningful, giving meaning to the people who do the jobs; but the process of working, so much- as it alienate a person from their own production, from the value they create, - it also alienates them from themselves, from their meaning...We are not just robbed of money in the workplace, but robbed of our lives and of our meaning, and this is the immorality of all immoralities...
Chris; in my line of work it was obvious to all what was the product that flowed out of our labor...To see a building grow out of a hole in the ground when you have unloaded the trucks, hooked the pieces, connected them, bolted them up, plumbed them up, decked them, detailed them, and tightened the bolts and welded the connections, it is hard to tell such a person that he could be replaced by a trained monkey working for peanuts, though it is still said, as a cruel sort of joke...
The whole point of modern mass production is to remove the craft from it, to make each task meaningless and generic so that no person can grasp the whole of production nor estimate the value of their part of it; but that value is meaning, and wages that give no sense of value deny the sense of meaning from people and from their lives...That person who profits on another does so much with money as he does with human meaning in that he takes the very meaning he denies to his workers...
Consider from a moral perspective how terribly pointless this all is...It has been a while, and I did not give it much thought at the time; but Cervantes, or perhaps Spinoza noted how the slaves got more meaning out of their lives that their masters... Aristotle said as much, that people enjoy what they do well, and do well what they enjoy, and to this they give the chief of all their days, but I am certain he was quoting an older poet than himself... If you should ever ask yourself why it is that so many rich people actually amount to so little, never add anything to knowledge, live vapid, often silly lives as consumers of luxury and enjoyers of ease, then allow me to offer you an answer...
People may gain wealth in the process of stealing meaning from the lives of others but they lose in the transaction...What people do to have their lives cannot be robbed totally of its meaning without reaching the point of taking the lives of the workers, and though that may wait at the end of the process it is not the primary object...
For those who do not see their lives as the product of their own labor as rich and poor alike cannot, their meaning is denied to them, and for such people whether it is in ease or in hardship, they have no meaning they can sense, or point to... It is the same with security... The rich feel insecure, and it often drives the to greater and greater wealth... As they take wealth and spread poverty their lives do not grow more secure but less so, and it is possible, since all people need their sense of security as much as their meaning, that being too long deprived of either adds to personal and social volitility...
Chris; if you want to see how pointless and meaningless our social system can become, then urge your government to try to collect all the taxes it thinks poor people owe the government... That money should not have been spent, or borrowed if taxes would not support it, but rather than be taxed, the rich loaned... And they did not just loan to the government, but sliced wages to the point where all people were forced to borrow, and to work most of their time for nothing... And because people had so much of nothing in working for interest, they had to buy cheap from overseas, and while much of that production overseas was with American Capital, it was still a net loss of jobs and wealth for this commonwealth, and in addition, the cost of defending American Capital abroad was laid on the government and shuffled on to the people...Free Enterprise means free of government, and real freedom of an economy from the people who find their lives governed by that economy...
If you want to talk about morality, my clip is loaded... I don't see a lot of morality anywhere in our situation, and in fact I see the process of our demoralization essential future slavery as nearly complete...Here you are trying to protect the rich from the immorality of taxation, but not trying to protect children from the ravages of poverty... Knowledge is judgment said Kant... Without knowledge of the whole situation, upon what can you base your judgement??? The situation we see is not new to history, and it can lead to revolution or to the decline and destruction of this people... I vote revolution..
It would be more just to see the government fall since it has loaned to the rich, and borrowed from the rich, has acted out of principals unworkable in practice, and loaded the cost onto us though we had no actual say in the matter...It is easier to pick up the pieces of our society that are worth saving than to try to make any part of the old beast work as it is supposed to...All you need to know is this: We have only a fraction of Democracy, but that is enough to make the rich hate it and desire to have it be obnoxious to us... They think they would be happy with government torn down, but government is the lynch pin saving them from being lynched...
Comment: #6
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Jan 16, 2013 6:06 AM
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